Cricket is blessed with a vast and well-developed culture, greater, I would dare suggest, than that of any other sport. The game’s variety and artistry and its wider social significance have always attracted writers from the poetic end of the spectrum: not just men who specialised in cricket, such as Neville Cardus, or R C Robertson-Glasgow, but literary figures with a broader hinterland, such as Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden. The interaction of cricket with life has led men of intellectual clout, notably CLR James, to make the game a vehicle to explore society and human nature, and to advance a philosophy. With James’s Beyond a Boundary, an exceptional work by any standard, I would bracket Graeme Wright’s Betrayal: The Struggle for Cricket’s Soul, published in 1993 but dealing with verities that those who run, play and watch the game would still benefit from taking into account. Even someone uninterested in cricket could learn something valuable from such books. In any society where serious cricket is played, it leaves its mark on much else. That point was made this year by Michael Henderson’s That Will Be England Gone, which I mentioned here recently, and Duncan Hamilton’s One Long and Beautiful Summer, both of which are in the highest class of cricket literature.
The long duration of a serious game, and social interaction it encourages – for players and spectators alike – are ideal to encourage the thought, discussion and reflectiveness that makes a good cricket book. Also, cricket has a long, well-documented history, and attracts philosophers and romantics. In England it has its roots in the village life common to almost all our people before the industrial revolution; to write about cricket is to write part of the history of our society. Many cricket books are simple exercises in nostalgia; but some open readers’ eyes and minds to an understanding of what sort of people we are, and how our values and outlook have evolved.
Seldom have cricket lovers been thrown back on the game’s culture, or been so grateful to have it, as in recent months. We have just had three tests played to empty grounds, with a new series starting this week; and at last the Bob Willis Trophy is under way, providing an opportunity for professional cricketers to get first-class match practice – but still no opportunity for those of us who love watching cricket to do so other than on television or online. Some matches that were supposed to have spectators were forced to proceed without them after the Government last Friday reversed its decision to allow ‘pilot’ schemes for crowds. The recreational game has resumed, and, so far, no-one seems to mind us watching it.
Hence we appreciate more keenly the books and other cultural manifestations of the game. It has been a good time to have some old Wisdens, not just to re-live matches we might have seen, but to read articles on the controversies of the past and to detect their relevance to the present and future. Again, Graeme Wright’s editorials from his two spells of editorship from 1987 to 1992 and in 2001 and 2002 contain insights about how cricket was developing that were prescient in the extreme – regrettably so in some cases. Those who subscribe to Sky’s cricket channel have had access to old matches to re-watch, and the BBC have re-run days from old Test Match Specials. This, though, brings us to a less satisfactory aspect of cricket’s culture.
The public could only watch the recent West Indies series from home. The highlights package on free-to-air television might have opened some younger eyes to the game: one hopes so. The live coverage is in most respects better than ever. There are more camera angles than anyone could want, and if one watches in high definition the clarity is like being there. The technical, statistical and analytical tools available mean every facet of every shot or wicket can be dissected almost to infinity. Sky has in Michael Atherton one of the more intelligent and thoughtful commentators of our age, and in Michael Holding and David Lloyd two men of huge experience, character and humanity who bring real pleasure to viewers. Yet other aspects of Sky’s presentation are increasingly laddish, despite the inclusion of women commentators. The reliance on ex-players as opposed to expert broadcasters shows through too often.
Test Match Special remains one of the BBC’s great services; but it is going through a bad patch. For decades one would listen to it with the sound on the television off; but much of its charm has gone. It has one truly outstanding commentator in Jonathan Agnew, who knows he is also in the entertainment business, and puts the listener at his or her ease instantly through his immense experience, knowledge of the game but, above all, the force of his personality and wit. He misses his foil, and the butt of his jokes, Sir Geoffrey Boycott, who for all his occasional curmudgeonliness made compelling listening. Too many of Agnew’s colleagues, especially when nattering among themselves during the rain breaks in the West Indies series, sounded like the football commentators one or two of them were.
TMS used to provide a variety of voices – important over a seven-or-eight hour day – but now it is increasingly a monotone. Occasionally, one feels one has intruded upon a private conversation among some of Britain’s dreariest PE teachers. This is not a plea for more plummy accents, though God knows one misses the unstrangulated vowels of Henry Blofeld and, still, the exuberance of Brian Johnston. We have been told for 40 years that there can never be another Arlott, but has anyone looked? Or for a Don Mosey? They were men without silver spoons in their mouths, and who not only loved the game and were steeped in it but who thought carefully before opening their mouths. TMS now has painful stretches of commentary consisting of little beyond banalities of a sort an Arlott or a Mosey would never have dreamt of inflicting on the audience.
Use of language assumes special importance on radio, for there are no pictures to convey information. Some spoken English on TMS is increasingly unworthy of professional broadcasters. A masterclass on the distinction between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’, for example, is urgently required, as is a reminder that there is no such word in the English language as ‘vissitudes’. There are vestiges of charm – Carlos Brathwaite added texture and character to the commentary on the West Indies series, and Phil Tufnell mostly stays the right side of tedium in his rather manufactured gorblimey personality. But a serious overhaul is required. Sky erred badly in dispensing with David Gower’s services; he is a genial and warm broadcaster, and the BBC should snap him up, despite his sin of being a middle-aged white male. When it comes to cricket culture, TMS was always something of a gold standard. It was good not just for the audience, but for the game and for the BBC, that it was. Its reputation is recoverable, certainly so long as Agnew graces it. But it increasingly insults its loyal audience, and struggles to match the best of the printed word.